A 3-month Buddhist meditation retreat is no less mind-altering than ingesting hallucinogens or traveling to a remote land where nobody speaks your language or knows your culture. But the agent (or angel) of revelation in intensive meditation is neither an exotic plant nor an expensive plane ticket. It is essentially this: silence.
I’m eight weeks into a three-month silence. For many days now, my inner world has been sweet and calm: mind quiet, concentration strong, access to compassion readily available. The wordless, ephemeral beauty of being alive saturates my waking awareness, colored by gratitude and a tolerable, even welcome, hint of melancholy. Access to this tender state is one of the reasons I enter these long silent immersions.
I am sitting in the Forest Refuge dining hall eating my breakfast oatmeal. I’m 4 weeks into a 3-month silent meditation retreat. My mind, however, is anything but silent: I’m in a fierce argument with the estate of songwriter Jimmy Webb.
By most standards, I’m a fairly experienced meditator. I meditate daily, and have for years. I’ve spent months at a time immersed in silent practice. I study it, teach it, and write about it.
I can still wonder if I’m doing it wrong.
It’s often said that Buddhism is built on two core principles – wisdom and compassion. On intensive meditation retreats, I spend most of my time engaged in wisdom-based practice, with mindfulness at the root. But it is metta, the Pali term for loving-kindness, that imbues the long, silent days with a fundamental heartfulness.
I’m 14 days into this silent Buddhist retreat, with 72 more to go. It’s my second Thursday. Last night was the fourth dharma talk. That’s four of 24 scheduled while I’m here.
I wonder if some people completely lose track of time while on retreat. I don’t. Life at silent meditation centers is radically less scheduled than anywhere else I know, yet still tethered to inescapable rhythms.
I had been practicing meditation for several years before I mustered the courage to sit a silent retreat. Lord Resistance, you are one strong adversary.
The essence of vipassana meditation — the Buddhist root of mindfulness — is to see things as clearly as possible without superimposed narrative, without the colorations of personal history, free from the desires and aversions that steer even the most subtle reaches of mental life. It is this practice I hone hour after hour, day after day, in the long weeks and months of a meditation retreat.
But sometimes, my meditation flows organically into something that feels more akin to prayer.
Here’s an old Jewish joke:
Stan has been shipwrecked on a desert island for decades. One day he is rescued. Before leaving the island, he shows the rescuer how he spent his years alone: Building a main street with several huts, each with a different purpose.
(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).
My first silent retreat was at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. The food at Spirit Rock, even at breakfast, was ample and delicious: hot and cold cereals, hard-boiled eggs, breads, assorted jams and spreads, and, at the far end of the table where the food was laid out, a big bowl of fruit.
The fruit bowl itself offered a generous selection. Except for bananas. These were always in limited supply, and went fast.